How to Set Priorities (without it ending in a fight)

In a previous post, I talked about the principle that:

if you have three hours a day and three priorities, you will make good progress. If you have ten hours a day and ten priorities, you will spin your wheels. So you can only afford three.”

That naturally raises the question:

So which three priorities do you choose?

The question is hard, because various things can go wrong:

  • You go through the exercise, and end up with everything as a first priority;
  • You go round and round in circles, never arriving at an answer;
  • It becomes a political process – not what priority, but whose priority?

In all, there are excellent opportunities for consuming huge amounts of time and damaging relationships.

But there are better ways. You need a process that is systematic, guaranteed to reach a conclusion, objective and transparent. The video presents three techniques.

How to Sell to the Paralysed, Paranoid and Anxious

One of my clients ( a marketing consultancy) recently received an email from one of their biggest clients, a version of an email that a lot of people are receiving:

“We’re very sorry, but given current conditions (all our stores are closed) we need to suspend operations with you for two or three months.”

This would have been a major financial hit for my client,  but we were able to change their client’s mind. We did it using a useful piece of psychological theory. The video explains.

Why It’s So Important – And So Powerful – To Focus

When I worked as a crisis manager, my job was to be successful where others had just failed. I usually found that my predecessor – the person who had just failed and been fired – was better at the job than me  in just about every aspect. Every aspect, that is, except the one that really mattered. What I had was an ability to set priorities, and the necessary level of ruthlessness and deviousness to stick with them in the face of constant calls to get involved in other things.

I formulated the principle that,

if you have three hours a day and three priorities, you will make good progress. If you have ten hours a day and ten priorities, you will spin your wheels. So you can only afford three.”

This principle was purely empirical, derived from my own experience and observations. Recently, I discovered the science behind it. Like most really powerful insights, it’s obvious once you’ve seen it. The video explains.

How to Sell New Things

I meet a lot of people who have brilliant new ideas to sell, and so many of them are frustrated. The video is a short summary of a seminar I did for a group of such people. In a nutshell, you need to offer something new, but also something old.

The Prisoner of Success

I meet a lot of these people. Diligently working away at strategies, with methods, that just don’t work any more. It’s clear to everyone but them that they don’t work any more, so why do they persist?

It’s because what they’re doing isn’t so much wrong, as not right any longer.  It used to work; in fact it is what made them successful, and that’s why it’s so hard to stop doing it. Here are some of the more common “no longer right” strategies and methods:

“Massive action solves any problem” No it doesn’t. If the organisation structure is not fit for purpose or the product is obsolete massive action will, at best, have no effect. More likely, it will be like kicking your car when it won’t start.

“It’s all about the people.” When you only have 5 of them, this is probably true. When you have 500, it isn’t. At that scale, it’s all about the people, the products, the strategy, the organisation structure, the management information systems and some other things I could think of given another few minutes. What is the number of people above which success is no longer “all about” them? Definitely 50, often as small as 15.

“Heroic action by me, the boss, solves all problems”. Not above a certain scale. If a £1m business has a 10%  revenue shortfall, it’s plausible that one person of great ability and energy could find the missing £100,000. If a £10m business has a 10% revenue shortfall, that same person will not be able to find the missing £1m.

Here are two questions worth asking yourself:

  • which, out of your methods and strategies, seem to be working less well than they used to?
  • what, over the last twelve months, has ceased to be true for you?



Change Management: Physics or Psychics?

A lot change  management is framed, implicitly, as physics. There is resistance, which needs to be overcome. Applying force to the situation (urgency, fear of what happens if we don’t change, excitement about what happens if we do) overcomes that  resistance. This is well exemplifed in John Kotter’s work.

This makes perfect sense if you are moving heavy furniture around in your house. The theory however runs into difficulty when we attempt to generalise from objects to people. Change causes fear, which causes resistance. If we try to overcome that resistance with more fear, then we set up a powerful vicious circle. It’s psychology, not physics, that operates here.

Consider a different approach, which works with the grain of human nature, not against it. Most people most of the time don’t like change which they don’t control, and would prefer to keep things as they are.  Here are two examples of the “things need to change so that everything can remain the same” approach.

One was the recently appointed head of an organisation with a lengthy history but which was in complete disarray. Radical change was clearly needed, but he realised that “radical” and “change” were the two words he most needed to avoid. Instead, he did all he needed to do under the banner of “longevity” – what do we need to do to ensure the longevity of the organisation, and the longevity of the careers of the people working there? The result was huge change with minimal resistance.

The second was the CEO who asked the question “how much do we need to grow for the organisation to remain sustainable?” The answer turned out to be (as I am sure he knew from the start) that it needed to double in size while abandoning a part of the business which had been central to its identity for decades. Again, very major change with minor resistance.

The models we use tend to create self-fulfilling prophecies. If we expect change to be a battle then it will be, just as if you go out on a Saturday night looking for a fight you will usually find one. I don’t think that’s what you want, is it? Try a little subtlety instead.

Acknowledgement: “things need to change so that everything can remain the same” is a line from a novel, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. It’s about a decadent and decaying aristocratic regime threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution, so you may or may find it relevant to your own situation. The quote, however, applies very widely. And it is an excellent novel.

What is a Theory For?

People use theories for two different purposes, one of which is much more helpful than  the other.

The recent death of Clayton Christensen of The Innovator’s Dilemma – “disruptive innovation” – fame reminded me of controversies related to the theory.  The book was hugely successful in the business world, and then came the backlash –  a New Yorker article in 2014 by Harvard historian Jill Lepore questioning its factual basis. Now Prof Lepore is a distinguished historian and what she said was very probably true, but the criticism misses the point. Or at least, it ought to miss the point.

Prof Lepore’s article was entitled “What The Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong.” And that is the problem. These sorts of theories are not gospels – not big overarching explanations of how everything is supposed to work. The problem with Christensen’s theory, which is not his fault, is that it got stretched too far. In his book (1997) he in fact says that most innovations are not disruptive. By 2014, however, the idea had developed that all significant innovation was disruptive.

If you look to Christensen’s theory as a theory of how all innovation works, or as a way of predicting which innovations will be significant and which will not, or even more as a recipe for creating huge change in a given industry, then it’s not up to the task.

Alternatively, if you look at it as “here are some interesting descriptions of  things which operated through a particular mechanism and produced results that were very good news for some people and very bad news for others, which suggest that you, particularly if you are a long-established incumbent in a market, should keep a careful watch out for similar things in your world which might operate according to similar mechansims and cause you similar grief, ” then I would suggest that the Innovator’s Dilemma is a must-read.

So, what is a theory? Is it a position to defend, or a tool? If the first, then the Lepore-Christensen debate has a point. But if on the other hand a theory is a tool, then it is something we can keep in our mental toolbox and use when necessary. Disruptive innovations may be fundamental in the development of our industry, or they may be irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. We have the tool if we need it.

Using theories as tools not as positions to defend has two huge benefits.

We avoid sterile debates about whether our theory does in fact explain everything. (The fact is, it can’t. The Unified Theory of Everything is still tantalisingly out of reach of even the physicists, but here we are in the realm of social science where it is nowhere in sight).

Using theories as tools means that we can chooose between them. We have not a single view but a toolbox. And the thing about toolboxes is that the more tools they have, the better.

(Acknowledgement: the idea of theories as tools or positions to defend comes from a book, Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy On The Path Of Liberation by Bruce Tift. It takes the idea in a different direction altogether, but if the title intrigues you it’s an excellent book).

Actionless Action

The time I should have been doing an MBA, I spent studying Taoist philosophy.

It’s a maddening, fascinating collection of elliptically expressed ideas from a bunch of characters who were probably completely fictitious.

That was 33 words that probably drove away 90% of the readers who happened across this. If you are still with me, welcome! Relax – you are among friends.

One of the most interesting Taoist concepts is wu wei – which can be translated as “actionless action”. Achieve everything by doing nothing or, as Lao Tzu says “the sage does nothing, and nothing remains undone.” This is really quite strange and I felt a little silly talking about it, until I realised I knew a master practitioner. In fact, I was married to one.

My wife is Italian. We met while I was working in Italy. When we married and moved to the UK, she got a job as a psychotherapist in a big central London hospital. She was very effective, able to help people who came to her with files two inches thick from previous contacts with a whole range of services. One of her patients, who presented as a homeless woman with a history of suicide attempts, is now a qualified lawyer.

What this has to do with wu wei is that, at the time, Sara didn’t really speak english. Hardly at all. You might think that this would be a handicap in delivering a “talking cure” but it  wasn’t. Somehow, she was able to change the climate around her in a way that made people more resourceful, more able to help themselves, less desperate or suicidal.

There are probably other people like this. Police officers who just need to walk onto the scene for everyone to calm down. Salespeople who sell without selling. Managers who never exercise their authority because people just do what’s expected of them. Experts in conflict resolution who leave everyone wondering what all the fuss was about.

I am left with the tantalising thought that there is a different, more subtle, less stressful way of doing almost anything that involves human beings. And it’s there, right in front of us, hidden in plain sight because it looks like nothing.

Activity Rates

In a conversation  recently I heard the words “activity rate.” This took me all the way back to a conversation I had in Madrid in the mid-90s, and an issue that has come up repeatedly since then.

I was talking to Santi, the Spanish country manager of a big UK medical publisher. He was under pressure from his boss, the Sales and Marketing Director, to up his activity rate; “you have to make sure you spend enough time on the road. Get into all the small towns.”

The problem was, that wasn’t how you sold medical texts in Spain. The way to succeed, and Santi had been very successful, was to understand that in each speciality – gynaecology, cardiology, orthopaedics or whatever – there were two or three opinion leaders. They were the professors who all the other professors in all the other medical schools looked to for guidance. If you wanted to sell your medical books you had to identify the opinion leaders and then concentrate on persuading them to endorse your texts. If they did, then the other professors would follow their lead. But it’s hard to find the time to do this when your boss is pushing you to travel all over Spain trying to meet everyone.

There are different ways of reading this story. It could be about not imposing your local views on how to do a job on other countries where things work differently. It could be about trusting your people to find their own way of getting things done. Or it could be about focussing on results and not methods.

These are all valid perspectives, but I’d like to take another angle. What is the great attraction of activity rates? It seems to me that the attraction, common to all strictly quantitative method, is that they eliminate a leap of faith. You don’t need to trust someone when they tell you that, in their country, things work differently. You don’t need to suspend your disbelief when you see people doing things in ways that seem odd. You don’t need to accept that someone else might know better than you, and that there is no easy way to determine who is right.

I say that focussing on activity rates avoids a leap of faith, but that’s actually wrong. Imposing your strictly quantitative view of the world actually entails a much larger, but hidden leap of faith; that greater objectivity is always better, and that your view of what to measure is the right one. One can  look back through history and see plenty of people who held these views and came to grief because of them. That is easy. What is harder is to accept that maybe, just maybe, we are one of those people.

The Strangeness of Sun Tzu

The name of Sun Tzu will be familiar to just about anyone who has studied business strategy. I know one business school academic who told me that it was the only text you needed to read to pass the course.

But yet, if you read Sun Tzu carefully you discover that he is actually quite subversive. Follow his advice and, even if you are successful, you will seem quite strange to most of your colleagues.

For example:  “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”, or;

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom or credit for courage.”

These come quite early in the book. As we move on, the advice becomes less contentious. For example,  “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” Very few would disagree with this in principle, even if not everyone observes it in practice.

A careful reading leaves us with an impression of a commander who follows a sound and generally recognised set of strategic precepts but whose principal aim is to avoid the sorts of things – big frontal attacks,  decisive victories, any sort of drama – that win fame and glory.  A commander who, despite their successes, may well appear to be doing very little.

Think back over all the admiring profiles of CEOs that you have read. How many of them were lauded for the battles they did not fight, the competitors they subtly persauded to pack up and go home, or the problems they forestalled?

These people exist – I have been lucky enough to meet a few of them. You probably know some of them too. I’d encourage you to reread Sun Tzu and start to recognise them, and their value.

Very Creative Pricing

Very often I find myself helping clients with pricing. It’s one of the biggest levers to raise profitability.

Usually I’m showing them ways to raise prices, but here in this video is an example that goes one better, changing the transaction from “I pay you” to “you pay me.” It’s also shot on a lovely sunny summer’s day, which might cheer you up if you are watching on the grey November morning that I’m posting it.